The Secret Lives of the Four Wives
July 2010 Indie Next List
— Jennie Turner-Collins, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati, OH
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African-born poet Lola Shoneyin sheds a fascinating light on the little-known world of polygamy in modern-day Nigeria, in her powerful and thought-provoking debut novel, The Secret Lives of the Four Wives (previously titled The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives). Fans of The 19th Wife and HBO’s Big Love will be enthralled by this riveting tale of a prosperous African family thrown into turmoil when the patriarch adds a young, well-educated fourth wife into the mix who threatens to expose the other wives’ deepest, darkest secrets.
“Alternately funny, shocking, and sad . . . a complex depiction of family and culture in modern-day Nigeria.
—Sacramento Book Review
“A magical writer. . . . [A] delicious story.”—Huffington Post
William Morrow Paperbacks, 9780061946387, 304pp.
Publication Date: July 5, 2011
About the Author
Lola Shoneyin's work includes three books of poems: So All the Time I Was Sitting on an Egg (1997), Song of a Riverbird (2002) and For the Love of Flight (2010) and two children's books: Mayowa and the Masquerades (2010) and Iyaji, the Housegirl (2014). Her debut novel, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives (2010), was long-listed for the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction and won the PEN Oakland 2011 Josephine Miles Literary Award. After teaching both in Nigeria and abroad for many years, Shoneyin now lives in Lagos, Nigeria and organises the Ake Arts and Book Festival.
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
- It is normal practice in Nigeria for wives to be known as 'Iya' followed by the name of their first child. 'Iya' in this context means 'mother of'. What does this say about the identity of women in a traditional Nigerian setting and how do you think this might impact on women who are unable to produce children?
- From the outset, the wives decide not to let Bolanle in on their secret, largely because her educational background makes them feel inferior. This turned out to be a disastrous decision on the wives' part. From your assessment of Bolanale's character, how do you think she would have reacted if she had been told?
- Baba Segi insists on everyone in his household being present during 'family time'. Is this a normal occurrence in Western homes? Why do you think Baba Segi introduced this as part of the daily routine?
- The circumstances that lead the different women to become Baba Segi's wives are very different. How much say did they have in the matter and what alternatives do you think were open to them? Did any of the wives make the right decision? What would you have done if you were in their situations?
- The novel explores the issue of gender and how society defines a woman's role from childhood. To what extent does Iya Segi defy these set roles? And in what ways does she wield power over her family. Why do you think, after making more money that she could imagine, Iya Segi remained married to Baba Segi?
- In the chapter, 'Rat Head', Baba Segi attempts to strangle Bolanle. This is out of character for a man who, in the beginning of the novel, said 'we must not manhandle our women'. What was it about this particular situation that led him to behave so irrationally? What does this tell you about the role of superstition and the fear of the supernatural in Nigerian society?
- Although many people find Iya Tope to be passive, we learn from 'Iya Tope' that it is she in fact who goes through the most liberating internal changes. Do you agree? How important would you say sexual pleasure is for the different wives?
- Iya Femi comes across as bitter and vengeful, even after her religious encounter. Would you say some of her actions are justified? To what extent did the death of her parents change her destiny?
- In the beginning of the novel, it is clear that Bolanle did not love Baba Segi. Do you think her feelings towards him changed through the course of the novel? If the other wives had been more accommodating, do you think Bolanle would have endured the marriage? Would your answer be different if she had been able to 'give' Baba Segi a child?
- Baba Segi loved his children dearly. He doted on every one of them, sent them to good schools and ensured that they lived comfortably lives. After discovering the 'secret' however, do you think his feelings towards his children changed? His reputation, ego or the physical presence of children in his household are all very important to Baba Segi but which is most important?
- Some reviewers have stated that everyone 'won' in the end. Do you agree with this? Who, in your opinion, are the true victors?